About 10 years ago ago, I felt myself getting Holocaust fatigue.
Not that – God forbid – I stopped caring about the terrible atrocities or the national tragedy. Rather, I had reached saturation point. I had been surrounded by Holocaust stories and history for so long, I did not feel the need to know any more.
The immediate trigger was working as the Jerusalem Post’s literary editor. About one in three books being sent to me concerned the Shoah, and I became desperate for other material to fill my pages and other books to nab from the office.
Over the previous decade, movie makers began to address the Holocaust in a more sophisticated way, with Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful and other films. I only watched a couple. My feeling was that many of these movies grappled with facts and moral questions which were revolutionary to depict on film, but had been addressed many times during my own Jewish education. They were made—I felt — for people who did not really know about the Holocaust, not for people like me who grew up with Holocaust classes, youth group activities and Yom Hashoah ceremonies.
Why am I telling you all this now? Because, recently, I found myself unexpectedly really interested in the Holocaust again.
The Holocaust Educational Trust asked me to join, as a journalist, a group of 200 British teens visiting Auschwitz. I had already met a group who had done the trip, was impressed by their thoughtful response, and wanted to write more about their experience.
Naively, I did not anticipate how moved I myself would be. Wandering around the camp with a Polish guide, I saw ghosts in every corner. It was impossible not to imagine the terror of the Jews disembarking from trains at exactly this point, sleeping in this very bunk, being gassed in this precise room. Repeatedly it hit me: there but for the grace of God go I.
Rabbi Barry Marcus, who accompanies the HET trips, told me as we walked down the notorious train tracks that he founded this incredible programme because “seeing is not like hearing”.
He was right, both emotionally and intellectually. Despite a lifetime of discussions about the culpability of “ordinary” Germans and Poles, the question took on new urgency when I saw with my own eyes just how close Auschwitz was to the town of Oswiecim. Yes, I had seen the famous photo of skeletal men on their wooden bunks dozens of times. But only when I entered the windy wooden huts in which they lived did I truly absorb the cold, crowded conditions. The ovens in which Jews’ bodies were cremated were nothing like I imagined – and I’d seen pictures of them, too.
The Holocaust was suddenly so relevant and gripping again, I found myself puzzling over my previous disengagement. Would there have been less ennui had my exposure to Holocaust stories not began as early as age 7 or 8? The enthusiasm of the British youngsters, who were first introduced to it in Year 9, was refreshing.
Or perhaps the problem was that so much of our Holocaust conversation is (inevitably and understandably) emotionally charged, intractably bound up with our national trauma? I consciously resisted the twin messages that Jews are victims, and that we are responsible for ensuring another generation is not lost. I do not want my Jewish identity — and that of my children — to be based on persecution.
How many of my peers similarly shy away from the Holocaust is difficult to gauge — it’s a politically incorrect discussion. But perhaps we should have it anyway. For a community like ours, where Holocaust education is a given, it is a fine balance between the holy work of remembrance, and overwhelming our children.